Main Engine Cut Off

Thank You to June Supporters!

Very special thanks to the 422 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off for the month of June. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, and it’s your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 38 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and seven anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, join the crew of supporters and producers!

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair of Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

Episode T+163: Suborbital Crew, Virgin Galactic to ISS

NASA recently established the Suborbital Crew office within the Commercial Crew Program, which will focus on developing a plan to fly personnel on suborbital spaceflights. At the same time, Virgin Galactic signed an agreement with NASA to provide private orbital spaceflights to the ISS.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 38 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and seven anonymous—and 385 other supporters.

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Episode T+162: Grant Bonin, SVP of Business Development at Spaceflight

Grant Bonin, Senior Vice President of Business Development at Spaceflight joins me to talk about everything they’ve been up to lately, including being acquired, signing deals with SpaceX for rideshares on Starlink missions and on dedicated flights to SSO, signing deals with new launch companies and international providers, and a lot more including manifesting satellites, last-mile services, and about what makes Spaceflight unique.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 38 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and seven anonymous—and 385 other supporters.

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DARPA Signs Several Contracts for Blackjack, OPIR Included

Way back in April, DAPRA selected Lockheed Martin for satellite integration of the Blackjack program. The goal is to build and launch a small satellite constellation within just a few years.

Just a few weeks ago, more contracts were signed, bringing the total to just over $70 million spread around several companies. Blue Canyon Technologies will be supplying satellite buses, and SA Photonics will be supplying optical communications terminals.

Most interesting is the contract Raytheon won for $37 million, under which they will supply Overhead Persistent Infrared payloads—the same type of payloads they’re supplying for the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared missile warning satellites.

Relativity Expanding to Vandenberg, Signs Iridium to Multi-Launch Contract

Relativity announced that they have signed a Right of Entry Agreement with the Air Force to develop a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, where they could fly missions to polar, Sun-synchronous, and other high-inclination orbits. That’s really important for Relativity’s business model, because combined with their launch site at Cape Canaveral—Launch Complex 16—they could sell missions to any orbit desired.

The agreement isn’t a “Come on in and build!” agreement, though. They still have to complete environmental assessments and a ton of other paperwork. In California, and within Vandenberg Air Force Base specifically, that could drag on forever and potentially be fatal to the plans. That’s made worse by the fact that the area they have access to—south of both SLC-6 (Delta IV Heavy) and SLC-8 (Minotaur)—has been a really tough spot to build on in the past.

I was wrong on my bet that Relativity would get SLC-3W. I’m running out of names to take over SLC-3W, but it is really close to SLC-3E where Atlas V and soon Vulcan fly from, so that might make it a tough spot for anyone to settle in.

The dearth of launch sites at Vandenberg could be a major area of focus of the upcoming Phase 2 awards for the National Security Space Launch program. Blue Origin’s New Glenn and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA would need a launch site if chosen, so that will be something to watch.

In other good news for Relativity, they also announced that they’ve signed Iridium to a multi-launch contract to put up Iridium’s spare satellites between 2023 and 2030. Iridium has 6 spare satellites that they kept on the ground to hedge against any issues that might have cropped up during their launch campaign with SpaceX.

Everything went perfectly with that campaign, though, so Iridium wants each of the 6 spare satellites to be put into a different plane of their constellation. Relativity’s Terran 1 turns out to be a perfect size and price for that job.

Relativity now has a hell of a backlog, plenty of facilities, and the holy grail that is both an east and west coast launch site, if they can successfully build one at Vandenberg.

I honestly wouldn’t bet on the latter, but not because of Relativity’s ability to execute.

Episode T+161: Mark Wiese, Manager of NASA’s Gateway Deep Space Logistics

Mark Wiese, Manager of NASA’s Gateway Deep Space Logistics, joins me to talk about the logistics architecture for Gateway and, specifically, the selection of SpaceX and Dragon XL for missions in the future. He even lets me get really nerdy and responds to some of my complaints and questions from past episodes!

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 38 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and seven anonymous—and 384 other supporters.

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Satellite Bonanza: Ten GEO Satellites Ordered in Prep for C-Band Clearing, More Coming

Intelsat ordered four from Maxar and two from Northrop Grumman, while SES ordered two each from Boeing and Northrop Grumman with two more yet to be announced. This is huge for satellite manufacturers who have been hurting in recent years after a dip in orders.

This is all in preparation for clearing C-band spectrum that has been reallocated towards 5G deployment in the US and will be auctioned off late this year. There was a hearing in the Senate earlier this week that had some fairly contentious clashes over the incentive payments for these satellite operators to clear spectrum by December 2023, two years before the date required.

In addition to an incentive, those payments are meant to cover purchasing new satellites required to transfer existing customers off of the reallocated spectrum. These order announcements sure seem to be timed to be fodder for that hearing, where everyone knew things would get heated. It’s helpful for those in support of the incentive payments—both satellite operators and the FCC itself—to be able to point to so many orders going to US companies for new satellites.

The news of the orders is probably music to the ears of SpaceX and Arianespace alike, who have seen a dip in launch contracts of this sort. Arianespace has very few commercial launches ordered for Ariane 6, and SpaceX’s 2020 manifest has been dominated by Starlink flights with the occasional NASA mission interspersed. SpaceX certainly has plenty on their manifest, but the additional contracts would be welcomed with open arms.

Spaceflight Signs Multi-Launch Agreement with SpaceX, Two BlackSky Satellites Up Next

Spaceflight Inc., the leading satellite rideshare and mission management provider, today announced it inked an agreement with SpaceX to secure rideshare capacity on multiple launches. This agreement between the two companies secures Spaceflight capacity to launch manifest payloads on several SpaceX launches through the end of 2021, providing launch schedule assurance to smallsat customers needing frequent, reliable, and cost-effective launches to Sun-synchronous orbit.

It was never a question that Spaceflight would be interested in the SpaceX rideshare program. It’s a perfect match—inexpensive slots offered by SpaceX which can be taken advantage of to sell the end-to-end services offered by Spaceflight at a solid margin. They’re also manifesting two BlackSky satellites on the next Starlink flight, just like we saw a few days ago with Planet flying SkySats on the previous flight.

The one bit of confusion I have here is that the press release for the multi-launch agreement only mentions Sun-synchronous orbits (SSO), which would mean this is for the dedicated rideshare flights SpaceX is offering about three times each year to SSO, and doesn’t actually cover any Starlink rideshares.

Relatedly, BlackSky satellites were only ever going to operate in SSO, but the upcoming Starlink launch is going to 53° assuming it’s just like all the others so far. That is decidedly not SSO, which is roughly 98° give or take a few tenths of a degree based on altitude.

Getting from 53° all the way to SSO is ridiculously expensive so there’s no way BlackSky satellites can fly themselves there. Either BlackSky is altering plans and will have multiple inclinations in their constellation of 60 satellites, or they really like the incredibly low launch price of a Starlink rideshare, or both. An inclination around 53° still covers a ton of locations on Earth that would be of interest to BlackSky imaging customers, although the revisit times are drastically different.

Space and Missile Systems Center Planning to Buy Two Rideshare Flights Each from Six Small Launchers

The Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), Contract Office (PKT), Kirtland AFB, NM intends to award six (6) sole source contract to small launch service providers, as directed by the Industrial Base Council (IBC), in support of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act-directed Defense Production Act (DPA) Title III Funding effort to ensure the timely availability of industrial resources and critical technology items that are essential for national defense.

The scope of each contract will be to procure 2 commercial rideshare launches with Government payloads. Each contract will have a period of performance of 24 months, with launch dates determined by the commercial customer payload schedule of each provider.

Still a long way to go on this, but this has been part of the work the Space Acquisition Council has been doing to try and stabilize small launch providers through the economic instability of recent months. They’re purchasing two rideshare launches from each of the following: AevumAstraX-BOWRocket LabSpace VectorVOX Space (Virgin Orbit).

Buying rideshare launches means there is capacity left on these rockets to be sold off to other customers, as well. All considered, with a final contract amount likely coming in higher than a typical commercially-available ride for these launchers (as we typically see with government launches), plus the ability to sell leftover capacity, it’s a really nice way to bridge the tough time for these companies that the Department of Defense wants to rely on in the future or relies on already.

The makeup of this list is quite interesting to consider. It definitely makes sense to have providers included that are close to operations, like Virgin Orbit and Astra. But I’m wondering about the inclusion of companies that have plenty of funding and flights manifested already, like Rocket Lab, and about the absence of promising-yet-still-somewhat-mysterious companies like ABL and Firefly.